Who doesn’t love Greek mythology?
And I’m not talking about the versions championed by certain groups who believe “Western culture” is in decline.
Mythology, in all its various forms, has long fascinated me. I’m definitely one of the kids who had a “Greek and Roman mythology” phase. And, arguably, I never quite outgrew that phase; I keep wrapping back around to these myths in my writing.
The latest example of that is Rare Flower, my new book, which is out next week. In it, I take a very loose approach to at least a couple of mythological traditions—one of which is Greek myth.
Narcissus in Greek Mythology
Narcissus is a pretty maligned figure in Greek mythology, for good reason: he’s a jackass.
Most of us have heard the base myth: Narcissus looks into a pool and becomes so enamoured with his own reflection, he can’t move away. He eventually dies because he’s so in love with himself—either killing himself because he can’t have himself or starving to death because he can’t move away from the pool.
In most versions of the myth, this is divine punishment from the gods. Narcissus spurns all suitors—and he is not nice about it. It’s his rejection of a nymph that does him in. The nymph fades away. The gods take revenge by having Narcissus meet the same fate, so tormented by love for one he cannot have that he, too, dies.
In short: Narcissus gets a taste of his own medicine.
The Confusing Origins of the Name Narcissus
Many of us will also recognize narcissus as the root of the word “narcissism” and “narcissist.” Today, we use these words to describe unhealthy or even obsessive self-love. Some people argue there is such a thing as “healthy” or “positive” narcissism. Most of us are familiar with the “malignant” version, which is a personality disorder. Narcissists are fragile individuals who need to have their egos pumped up so much, they abuse others into fulfilling their needs, often trampling the needs of their loved ones in the process.
Perhaps surprisingly, the root of the word narcissus is actually related not to ego or self-esteem but to sleep. “Narcissus” has the same root as “narcolepsy” and “narcotic”—one a sleep disorder, the other a class of drugs known for inducing sleep.
The name narcissus actually comes from a flower—one most of us would know as a daffodil or perhaps a jonquil if we’re being fancy. People in antiquity believed the flower, which is poisonous to many animals, had narcotic properties.
Narcissus, like other flower-named Greek mythological figures, becomes this flower after he dies.
Thus, the narcissus flower is also associated with sleep and death.
Hades and Persephone in Greek Mythology
The tales of Narcissus and the Rape of Persephone tale don’t seem to have anything in common. One is about a dude who falls in love with his own reflection and dies for want of himself. The other is a tale that explains seasons.
Yet, as I just noted, the narcissus flower has a connection with both death and sleep. Thus it has a connection with the underworld, Hades, and Persephone herself.
We’ll start with the narcissus and its connections to death and sleep. As noted, people believed the flower had narcotic properties. Narcotics induce sleep—often a “deathlike” sleep. We also have to remember that, in Greek myth, Hypnos and Thanatos—Sleep and Death—are twin brothers. Thus, we might think of Sleep and Death as one and the same. Sleep is a kind of “temporary” death, while Death is permanent sleep.
No surprises here: we say animals are “put to sleep” when we give them lethal injections. Death might be euphemistically referred to as “the long sleep.” We can even see some parallels in myths like Snow White: the princess bites the apple and falls into a “deathlike sleep.” Romeo and Juliet uses the same idea. Juliet takes the concoction that makes her appear dead, when in reality she’s only sleeping. Unfortunately, the friar’s note to Romeo doesn’t make it in time, and he kills himself, believing Juliet is really dead.
The idea that death and sleep are two sides of the same coin is prevalent in the English-speaking world.
Thus, we can see a flower that has sleep-inducing properties might be associated with both sleep and death. And indeed, the narcissus has been associated with both the Greek underworld and the tale of Persephone.
The Persephone—Narcissus Connection
The Greek underworld includes a place known as “Asphodel Meadows”—asphodel is another name for the paperwhite narcissus. Thus, we see that the underworld is full of a flower that supposedly induces sleep—or perhaps death. (Again, most narcissi are actually poisonous in some capacity).
This may be a late addition to Greek mythology. The underworld underwent something of an evolution over time, becoming more sophisticated with different “planes” or “realms” within it. Thus, Asphodel Meadows may be a later association, although it’s mentioned by Homer.
It’s quite possible that it was added in honor of Persephone, after she became Hades’ Queen. There are two reasons for that.
The first, and most simplistic, is that, when Hades abducts Persephone, she’s picking flowers in a field. Some variants of the myth specifically state she’s picking asphodel—the paper white narcissus. Thus, Persephone has an instant connection with this flower, which already has an association with both death and sleep.
So it might make sense, within the evolution of the underworld in Greek mythology, for Asphodel Fields to be a later addition. Perhaps it’s something Persephone herself introduced or something Hades did to appease his queen.
Heralds of Springtime and Rebirth
The narcissus has another connection with Persephone, though. Although it has associations with death, the flower is also a symbol of spring. In much of the northern world, daffodils appear in early spring, often before the snow has even melted. Their bright yellow tones are very much associated with springtime—the season of rebirth. Thus, the daffodil becomes a symbol of the life-death-rebirth cycle. That’s something Persephone herself is associated with. Persephone’s return to the surface world in the spring brings with it rebirth, and the Earth teems with life due to her mother Demeter’s joy. When autumn comes and Persephone must return underground, Demeter becomes joyless, and all things wither. Winter is Demeter’s sadness at Persephone’s absence; nothing grows while her daughter dwells under the Earth.
In Greek mythology, the disappearance of Persephone under the Earth becomes the reason for the changing of the seasons. The winter season is usually associated with death anyway, but here the link becomes most obvious. Persephone literally descends to the underworld to preside as the queen of the dead. She takes all life with her and returns triumphant in the springtime, as the Earth bursts back to life.
And the narcissus is symbolic of all that.
Choosing Narcissus over Persephone
The Hades/Persephone myth has been told and retold dozens of times over, throughout history. Even in the modern era, we can find plenty of authors deriving inspiration from it. Lore Olympus might be the most exemplary in recent memory, but there are others.
There are even some LGBTQ+ retellings—some envision Persephone as a trans woman. Others imagine the dread goddess as a trans man or a nonbinary individual. Some retellings play with the Hades figure, remaking Hades into a sapphic lover, a trans man, and so on.
I’m obviously playing fast and loose with various mythologies in Rare Flower, as I’ve replaced Persephone with Narcissus. The Hades figure moves into Melanthios, a fairy lord rather than a Greek deity. Nonetheless, Melanthios shares various traits with Hades. He presides over life and death, and he rules the underworld, where the shades of the living go after death. Ant is both a dread god—one not to be talked about—and one that must be accorded reverence.
The narcissus, as noted, has plenty of connections with the underworld, Hades, and Persephone. Choosing Narcissus to take on the Persephone role makes sense. Narcissus is intimately connected with death. The flower is present in the original myth when Hades carries Persephone off. Narcissus must precede these events—otherwise Persephone couldn’t be picking narcissi, because they didn’t exist before Narcissus died.
The most direct Hades/Persephone reference in Rare Flower is Narcissus eating the food of the underworld. This is a real sticking point between Ant and Narcissus, and it should be one between Hades and Persephone—at least when she’s “tricked” into eating the pomegranate seeds. In other versions, Persephone knows what she’s doing and willingly eats the seeds.
Mythological Narcissus Is Definitely Bi
There is another reason I chose Narcissus here. Some myths explicitly reference Narcissus having male suitors, whom he rejects. In the Greek world, it wasn’t uncommon for young men to have older male lovers. Typically, these relationships lasted through their teens and would dissolve when they became men of marriageable age, usually in their early twenties. Narcissus, being as beautiful as he was, is said to have been courted by male and female suitors alike. Indeed, it’s a female nymph who curses him and brings the gods’ wrath down upon his head.
In these myths, there’s another connection to death, however. In one variant, Narcissus gives a sword to a would-be male suitor and tells him to kill himself. The man does while Narcissus watches. This showcases how heartless and cruel Narcissus is, which is the reason for his punishment. In this version of the myth, after Narcissus falls in love with himself, he cannot bear the pain of being in love with someone he cannot have and so also commits suicide.
Other versions of the myth have the nymph Echo fall in love with him, only to be spurned by Narcissus. In pain, she wastes away. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, notices the nymph’s pining and curses Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection. Nemesis draws another connection between Narcissus and the underworld. She is a daughter of the goddess Nyx and thus sister to Thanatos and Hypnos—Death and Sleep.
Connecting Dots between Adonis and Narcissus
Nemesis also draws a connection between Narcissus and Aphrodite, as Nemesis is sometimes an aspect of the goddess of love. Here, she certainly seems to be acting on behalf of spurned and vengeful lovers. In turn, we can connect to another tale: that of Adonis.
Adonis is another beautiful male youth who turns into a flower. In most versions of the myth, Aphrodite and Persephone was over Adonis. Adonis ends up splitting his time between the surface world with Aphrodite and the underworld, with Persephone. In this way, the Adonis myth echoes Persephone’s own, and he becomes part of the life-death-rebirth gods.
The Adonis myth and the Narcissus myth share several similarities. Adonis is a beautiful youth and he has many admirers. He is also a hunter, like Narcissus. Both young men have connections to the underworld and to the life-death-rebirth cycle of the seasons. Adonis’s connections are much more explicit than Narcissus’s, but both can be connected to Persephone and, more tangentially, Aphrodite.
Thus, it isn’t difficult to imagine a melding of the two myths. This is especially true when we consider that the anemone—the flower Adonis turns into after his death—is also a herald of spring. The anemone also stands for ill-fated love. We might consider Narcissus’s love for himself, along with his suitors’ love for him, to be quite ill-fated.
Working It All In
Obviously, I took a minor detail in a few different stories and worked them together into a larger patchwork quilt. The “asphodel” in the Rape of Persephone allow me to draw in narcissi and then Narcissus explicitly. Narcissus’s parallels with the Adonis myth allow for more syncretism. In this version, Narcissus becomes both Persephone and Adonis in a blending of the two myths.
Of course, I also wanted to ensure that the original Narcissus myth was still at least somewhat visible. Narcissus is thus a troubled youth who spurns lovers, considered love, at best, a game. At the outset, he is shallow, self-absorbed, and cold-hearted, to some extent. The story gives us a reason why, but Narcissus and the reader are both unaware of that reason.
Narcissus almost dies, as we learn, because of a vengeful ex-lover, a young woman he’s spurned. This isn’t Echo, who pines away, but instead a combination of the pining nymph and the angry, vengeful goddess. In a sense, Lilah becomes Narcissus’s nemesis in the book. Narcissus thus undergoes death and rebirth, similar to Adonis, while also “suffering” the retribution the Narcissus figure experiences in that myth.
All in all, it’s a very loose way to play with Greek mythology, taking pieces of various myths that sync up—or can be made to sync up—and discarding the parts that don’t work.
Anyone looking for a “pure” retelling of any of these myths will need to look elsewhere. Rare Flower is syncretic, taking inspiration from a variety of sources—Greek and otherwise—and fusing them into a tale about nature and the delicate cycle of life-death-rebirth that hangs in the balance of our modern world.